No food in 9 days for 19 Ely State Prison inmates on hunger strike

In this July 11, 2018, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to Ely State Prison, the location...
In this July 11, 2018, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to Ely State Prison, the location of Nevada's execution chamber near Ely, Nev. T(AP Photo/John Locher, File)(John Locher | AP)
Published: Dec. 9, 2022 at 8:10 PM PST
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Through stifled sobs, Nina Fernandez described on Friday a vastly different version of events than those shared by Nevada prison officials as to why her son and dozens of others have been on hunger strike at a maximum-security prison for more than a week.

The Nevada Department of Corrections has said the protest was prompted in large part by complaints about inadequate meal portions from a new food vendor, Aramark Correctional Services, according to statements released since the prisoners at Ely State Prison stopped eating on Dec. 1

But in a phone call on the second day of the hunger strike, Fernandez said her son Sean Harvell, 35, told her the protest was over what he called unsafe and inhumane living conditions.

Harvell alleges physical abuse by prison staff, excessive lockdowns and unreasonably long periods of solitary confinement, in addition to the food concerns.

On Friday, a top correctional official maintained that meal portions led to the strike at the prison about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Las Vegas.

“I’m unaware of rights being violated,” said Brian Williams, deputy director of the state Department of Corrections, adding that the agency is “going to do what’s in the best interest of the offenders.”

Williams was peppered with questions from prison reform advocates and reporters outside a state-run transitional housing facility in Las Vegas. About a dozen people had gathered to show support for the Ely prisoners on the ninth day of their hunger strike.

According to the Department of Corrections, two dozen people were participating in the hunger strike as of Friday morning. Of those, 19 have refused food for nine straight days, since Dec. 1.

Williams’ comments did little to ease tensions outside the Las Vegas facility, and as he went back inside, Fernandez said she was reminded of a recent conversation with her son, who has been incarcerated at Ely since late 2016.

“He said, ‘Mom, if I never make it out, just know I loved you,’” Fernandez, a mother of 13, recalled. “That’s sad to say as a parent that your child came to you like that.”

Nearby, a man she had never met opened his arms offering a hug and Fernandez accepted, crying into his chest.

The man, Marcus Kelley, said he served nearly a decade in a Michigan prison before being released in February 2021. Kelley told Fernandez he also participated in hunger strikes in 2014 prompted by issues with Aramark, the food vendor. Those included unapproved menu substitutions and worker misconduct. In one instance, a kitchen employee was fired for ordering a cake be served to prisoners that appeared to have been nibbled on by rodents.

Michigan ultimately terminated its $145 million contract with Aramark 14 ½ months early.

The food vendor has not returned requests for comment about the new claims in Nevada.

In a statement released hours after the Las Vegas protest, William Gittere, acting director of the Nevada prison system, announced a policy change to “administrative sanctions” in light of the hunger strike.

He said that as of Friday, prison staff will not impose more than one sanction on a prisoner at a time. Sanctions include revoking phone time and commissary privileges.

Prior to the hunger strike, prisoners could be punished with “concurrent” sanctions, meaning multiple privileges might be taken from a prisoner at the same time, the statement said.

Gittere described the new policy as a “significant change.”

Return Strong, a prisoners’ rights group that has been in contact with the Ely protestors, shared a list of demands compiled by the prisoners ahead of Friday’s protest.

Among the changes they want to see, according to Return Strong, are an end to “de facto solitary confinement” and group punishment, and “immediate intervention” by the state to address health and safety concerns.

Gittere stepped in as acting director after the former prison system chief, Charles Daniels, was asked to resign by Gov. Steve Sisolak. That came in the wake of the high-profile escape of a convicted murderer who planted a motion-activated bomb in a casino parking lot in 2007, killing one person. The escape went unnoticed for four days.

Nevada Department of Corrections statement:

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) announced Thursday some clarifications in policy that have been cited as part of the impetus for the hunger strike at Ely State Prison.

“We are listening to these offenders and want to fix those areas where we may have been inconsistent,” said Acting Director William Gittere. “Some of the claims are false, but some of them have merit, and we want to correct them.”

The most significant change, announced to staff Thursday, is a clarification in the method of applying administrative sanctions, which include revocation of privileges, such as phone time and commissary. Where the regulation governing disciplinary sanctions is clear — disciplinary segregation must be applied concurrently rather than consecutively — the language in the regulation governing more minor administrative sanctions is more nebulous.

“Going forward, just like disciplinary segregation, we will not impose consecutive sanctions,” Gittere said. “Any administrative sanctions beyond the current action will cease. This will bring us in line with the spirit intended when the revised regulation was created.”

The hunger strike began at Ely State Prison on Dec. 1 with 39 offenders. On Friday, 24 offenders were participating. Of those, 19 have been on strike for nine days, one for three days, one for three days and four are on their second day.

Twenty of the offenders involved are classified as maximum security under High-Risk Potential security protocols. The principal motive cited by participants has been the portion size of meals being served. “Our supervisors are monitoring each feeding and personally observing the food deliveries to ensure proper portion sizes daily,” Gittere said. “Our Support Services team is in contact with the vendor regarding the terms.”

Other offenders listed individual complaints as their reason for joining the strike. Gittere said understaffing issues are making it difficult to meet the daily requirements like recreational time outdoors, but officials are working on the problem.

“We understand offenders are dissatisfied that we can’t turn around these changes as quickly as we’d like,” he said. Other complaints include:

• Lack of Privileges Offered at Other Institutions: At some facilities, offenders are provided the opportunity to participate in fundraisers and food drives. Those programs are not available at Ely State Prison. NDOC is structured to incentivize good behavior — as an offender completes certain requirements and avoids disciplinary behavior, he can classify to a facility with fewer controls and more privileges. Offenders classified as maximum custody under High-Risk Potential protocols are afforded fewer privileges.

• Lack of Programming: For the first time in the history of ESP, offenders have access to free college classes through Great Basin College. Offenders can work on classes daily. ESP offers other education services as well, which includes high school equivalency and high school diploma courses. All education programs are available to all custody levels, to include those with High-Risk Potential. Work assignments are available for eligible offenders in all custody designations (maximum, close, medium and minimum.) The frequency depends on the job and work location. In-person religious services are offered for those offenders housed in level 1 general population, minimum custody, and the Condemned Men’s Unit. Most religious services are conducted once per week. Re-entry programming for those offenders housed in level 1 general population and minimum custody. Classes are scheduled two times per week for each group/class.

• Changing PIN Numbers for Phone Access: PIN numbers are never changed without notifying the offender. They are changed when an offender not assigned to the number is discovered to be using it. When PIN is changed, the original owner is notified, as a means to prevent fraudulent activity.